Ten years is a long time to wait for anything, and that’s how long the first member-owners of the South Philly Food Co-op have been waiting for the dream of a community-owned grocery store to become a reality.
Lots of strides have been made in that time: 1,250-plus members have signed up, more than $1 million in capital was raised, a site was chosen at Juniper and Snyder after a yearslong search, and groundbreaking was celebrated in April 2019. But a grand opening has proved elusive. Year after year, articles in various publications (this one included) reported the co-op was expected to open within the year.
This time, it just might be for real — if the pandemic allows.
In early March, the co-op announced to its members that the site’s contractor was about six weeks from completing work at 2031 S. Juniper St. Then coronavirus hit, grinding construction to a halt.
“As we understand from our other co-op compadres around the world, 10 years is pretty much the horizon for a food co-op,” said SPFC board president Leigh Goldenberg. “We were really assuming we were going to have our doors open by our 10th birthday, which would have been in April, but that didn’t quite happen.”
We spoke to Goldenberg, one of SPFC’s first 100 members, about how the pandemic affects the yet-to-open co-op, what shoppers can expect when it does open, and how the new store will fit into the neighborhood.
This transcript was edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you moving forward after the pandemic-induced construction delay?
Our contractors are permitted to return to work, and we have a meeting this week to figure out what that might look like. We’re really conscious about making sure they’re doing so safely and also trying to understand what pieces of the supply chain might be affected.
In terms of the equipment that we [the co-op operators] need now, most of our equipment has been ordered and constructed and some things are even being delivered. Our major refrigeration is built and ready to install, our produce and bread displays are arriving. It’s a little bit going out of order from what we would have wanted — you know, we wanted all our drywall to be sealed before we brought in shelves.
So it’s just at this point of figuring out the new timeline and order of operations for construction. We’ll then keep moving ahead on all of the other elements: installing our point-of-sale system, figuring out exactly where suppliers are, and what we’ll be getting, the whole pricing structure, hiring, training, and opening.
So depending on when our contractors can get back in there, we’re looking at probably another three to five months until opening.
It must be surreal to get this close and then have a pandemic hit.
Gosh, you know every construction project has its moments and its hiccups and its surprises, and we haven’t been immune to that. And the organizing and the capital just takes a lot longer in a cooperative space — we didn’t have someone that could personally guarantee or finance the $1.4 million dollars that we needed for this project.
» READ MORE: Why it can take years to open a co-op grocery store
And the longer something takes, the more it costs. These months that construction has been shut down, we’re still paying our rent, we’re still paying our general manager, and we have a part-time bookkeeper. So even though we are incredibly nimble and our monthly overhead is not drastic, it still picks up on what our original fund-raising was going to be. Our fund-raising goal was complete, and now we need to revisit what our capital needs are.
I recognize from a member perspective, or someone who’s not as dug into the day-to-day as key volunteers and staff might be, that it feels like a moving goalpost all the time. That’s something we’re really conscious of. We want people to know that we’re stewarding their money very well and trying to open a store and in a sustainable way. But there are factors outside of our control.
What I think still remains to be seen is how much the supply chain and the way that we need to operate in a post-pandemic world is going to change the assumptions we had when we made our initial pro forma years ago. I can say that we do have the benefit of learning from our other area co-ops. Say that we had opened in March, and then everything turned upside-down and we needed to think about how to take care of our workers, how to employ social distancing in our environment, initiate pickup and delivery and online shopping. Now we have a chance to do that all as we’re readying to open.
Are there any changes that you made because of the pandemic?
We’ve been working on recognizing where there’s a gap for our communities. Even though we don’t have a store, we already are a co-op with these shared values. We’re looking at starting a pantry-staples box to support local suppliers and local businesses and get items out to our community. That’s something that we’re working on now, to just make sure that we’re supporting our community even though our doors aren’t officially open.
We had already been searching for an online delivery partner for our web store, so this just makes that feel more critical. I don’t believe there are plans to change the layout. We’re trying to use as much of the square footage as possible and get as much product in as possible.
How big is the space? Can you compare it to the layout of some other city grocery stores?
It’s 3,300 square feet; about 2,500 of that will be the shopping area, and the rest will be back-of-house. It’s probably closer to Essene Market in Queen Village, but our space is just one long rectangle when you come into a shop. It feels like a very large first floor of a rowhome.
What kind of food can people expect to buy at the co-op?
It’s going to be a full-service grocery store with produce and meat and cheese and shelf-stable items and bulk bin and all of that. There’s going to be a heavy emphasis on organic and local food. We’re trying to make sure that we have a good selection of basics, so that people can afford to shop our store.
» READ MORE: Food co-ops on rise in Philly area
I like to always mention that it’s as much about what we stock in the store as what we don’t. We don’t want to come in and undercut the prices of an immigrant-owned business in the neighborhood or a woman-owned business or something like that. If we don’t carry something, we can point people to the place that does. We’ll be as much of a one-stop shop as possible, but there might be things that we intentionally say, “OK, we’re going to get this from this local business, or we’ll try to get people going to that other place.”
A lot of people have an association with the term “co-op,” that it’s more expensive. I know you’ve done a lot of outreach to the community. With South Philly having gentrified but also having deeply ingrained communities who’ve been here for generations, how have you approached that?
That’s been on our minds since day one. Everyone recognizes that often the volunteers and people who are doing the work are the people that have that time and resources. So we had to be conscious of that. A few years back we started a food justice and equity committee, an advisory group to our general manager that looks at our practices. And one of the things that we initiated was a community equity fund, so that being a member-owner did not have a financial barrier. We fund raise for that and donations offset the cost of membership for someone who might not be able to afford the $200.
We’ve done multiple rounds of surveying for justice and equity, and also advising on how we might accept SNAP benefits. It went from being a group that was really interested in self-education and outreach to now getting into the nitty gritty of what that means for the operations of the store.
How do you join, and what do you get for joining?
It’s a $200 onetime lifetime investment. It’s not an annual fee or anything, that is your equity safe, that is your share of the business. At this point, we have 1,264 member-owner households, which is amazing. So there’s the $200 option, then there’s the $25 community equity fund for when the $200 is a financial barrier. With that, you are a voting member, which means you help elect democratically our board of directors — we actually have our election coming up at the end of this month.
Anyone will be able to shop at the store, it’s not a member-only proposition to be able to come in. But we will have specials for member-owners, certain discount days, certain items.
We have a Shop South Philly program. There’s over 40 local businesses that offer discounts and incentives to our members. So that’s anything from you know like $1 off a growler fill to discounted yoga class card.
And when the co-op is profitable, the board can choose to return profits to its members. It’ll be a few years until we are profitable — this is a small-margin business. But what I use as an explanation for folks is if you shop at REI, and you’re an REI member, at the end of the year you might get a gift card that is your dividends back to you based on the amount that you shopped there. So we’ll be looking to do something like that.
It must be exciting to have been a part of this for so long and to get this close.
Oh my gosh. Some days it’s hard for me to imagine what it’s going to feel like when we ring up our first order there, because it has been like so theoretical for all this time. But when you walk into the store and you see things happening — it’s getting more tangible. It will happen.
And especially now knowing what a need there is. We knew that food was an important part of being a human, but when you constantly hear how essential workers are and the grocery industry, it feels like we have a real responsibility.
To learn more about the South Philly Food Co-op and join, visit southphillyfood.coop.